It's a complaint that's been around for as long as there have been classics for teachers to assign to students: kids just don't want to read them. Shakespeare? Too many wherefores and thous. Hawthorne? Like pulling teeth. Bronte? Pure torture!
Doubtless those students that do their homework and slog through the archaic wording gain a wealth of cultural knowledge and prestige points, not to mention to age-old morals and themes contained within those venerable tomes. One of the perks of being an author is getting to allude to those great pillars of literature, and if the reader has read them, it's like a secret code.
But literary allusions aren't the only way to re-use those classics of yore. Some writers have actually taken it upon themselves to retell those classics: strip them down to those core themes and morals, and repackage them for a new generation. Blasphemy? Maybe. But it may just be the perfect way to get kids to absorb all that the classics have to offer. And who knows? Perhaps they'll be inspired to go back to the original text.
Recycling classics is nothing new, of course. George Bernard Shaw retold Ovid's Pygmalion myth in play form, which in turn inspired the musical My Fair Lady and the teen flick She's All That. Mythology is a popular starting point in YA literature, too -- Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians series about a boy who discovers he is the son of a Greek god have been very successful (a movie is expected in 2010). Riordan incorporated the Greek myths into his books, but Shana Norris took it a step further in Troy High. Her book is a retelling of Homer's Iliad, set in teen central: high school.
Taking classics and reworking them for a high school setting is par for the course for Young Adult novel adaptations. Meg Cabot's Avalon High retells the saga of King Arthur; Daniel & Dina Nayeri take on Goethe in Another Faust (first in the 'Another' series of retellings); and Cara Lockwood's books - Wuthering High, Scarlet Letterman, and Moby Clique (I'll let you guess the basis for those) -- are all part of her series Bard Academy, alluding to the great playwright himself.
Of course, there is no lack of Shakespeare novel adaptations to go around. John Marsden's Hamlet has been garnering a lot of attention this year, but Alan Gratz (Something Rotten) and Lisa Klein (Ophelia) have put their own spins on the play as well. Alan Gratz has even taken it a step further and produced a series around his Horatio Wilkes character: the next book is Something Wicked, which follows the same general story as Macbeth. By far the most popular Shakespeare story to retell time and again is, of course, Romeo & Juliet. Walter Dean Myers (Street Love), Sharon Draper (Romiette and Julio), and Gordon Korman (Son of the Mob) are just a few of the YA authors that have reshaped the timeless tragedy to a modern setting. Others, like Lisa Fiedler in Romeo's Ex and Suzanne Selfors in Saving Juliet have used it as a jumping board to tell a different side of the story -- or to try and alter it altogether.
Another popular classic icon that today's writers love to retell is Jane Austen. The bestselling Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is more parody than retelling, but it's certainly brought the spotlight back full-force on the beloved author. There are more retellings of the story of Lizzie Bennet and Mr. Darcy than you can shake a stick at (Bridget Jones's Diary is maybe the most famous), but her other works don't get overlooked! Rosie Rushton took on Sense & Sensibility in The Dashwood Sisters' Secrets of Love, and Emma sees a transformation into a barista in The Espressologist. (Coffee, it should be noted, seems to be a popular theme in more recent adaptations - it's central in Jody Elizabeth Gehrman's Triple Shot Betty books (Much Ado About Nothing and Cyrano de Bergerac too.)
Classic literature forms one of the great pillars of our culture today, and seeing them retold offers a wealth of opportunities: to the authors, who get to pay homage to the books that inspired them, and to the readers, who can revisit favorites, or get to know them for the very first time - with characters and language that doesn't seem so alien. Most of all, they're just a lot of fun. Besides, is there really such a thing as too much Lizzie Bennett or Mr. Darcy? I didn't think so.